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Criterion’s Deep End: Hoop Dreams

November 4th, 2011 by James Goux

It’s fascinating to see just the variety that the Criterion Collection truly has. This week, in the interest of following the Hulu Blog’s sports theme, I decided to give Hoop Dreams a viewing. Until I saw the description moments before pressing play, all I knew about the film was that it had something to do with youths who wanted to play in the NBA. As I reached this screen, I then learned that it was in fact a documentary about two high schoolers with just this goal, and that it had a runtime of two hours and forty five minutes, unusual for any documentary I’d seen. The one last thing that surprised me before I truly got into the movie was that it seems the film was originally intended for television, also something I would not have expected from the Criterion Collection. But Criterion is known for impeccable taste, not necessarily for uniformity in its selections, so I went along with the film’s metaphorical tipoff.

The really interesting thing is that—unlike many Criterion films—the length of the film is not due to cushy pacing and airy shots. This movie is packed from front to back, and I never found myself disinterested during its running time. For being such an intimate story of two high school boys’ lives, this film is really, truly epic.

I’m perhaps most impressed that this had to be a project more than four years in the making, as it takes the kids through their entire high school careers and beyond. And the stories are so intriguing that you have to figure they may have followed an extra kid or two, just to get at the ones that really popped.

In terms of winding a narrative, they did a fantastic job of building out a dynamic story from what I imagine could’ve been a bloated meandering mess. Thematically, these two stories complement each other so well that you have to feel like they got a little lucky that things rolled out the way they did. In both cases these are stories of boys who see basketball as a redemptive possibility, as the sole hope for bringing themselves out of the ghettos and completely turning around the histories of their families. As you’d imagine, the sport has its work cut out for it in accomplishing this goal for the boys. I’m personifying the sport here because it really is a character in the film, and more importantly, in the boys’ minds. Despite having girlfriends, you never see the love in their eyes for those girls the way you do when they’re talking about basketball.  One of the film’s greatest strengths comes in its repeated surprises in the directions of the boys’ lives: It sets you up very intentionally to expect certain things and repeatedly subverted those expectations.

In a film all about men, sports, bravado, and pride, it’s a small wonder that the greatest emotional peak of the film is seeing a boy’s mother finish nursing school and doing it with flying colors. As she cries with happiness I couldn’t help but smile at her achievement and the sheer earnest joy that the camera managed to capture in that moment. It’s no small feat to keep a scene like that feeling honest when a clunky documentary camera is present. On the opposite (but equally impressive) end of the spectrum, a one-on-one game between a son and the father who has disappointed his family again and again manages to hold all the energy of a lifetime of angst between the two. The father is completely involved in the game and trying to impress as usual while his son has somehow matured past games entirely. As can be expected in a relationship like this, the father is completely oblivious to the drama of the situation and carries on trying to make his son look foolish until his child is forced to put him in his place in front of the entire family.

The one area where the film really seems to fall flat is the cinematography, which can be expected based on my guesses of the budget. This falls flat most strongly when it comes to the basketball games themselves, which fail to show the dynamic drama in quite the way an actual sports film would. They just don’t have enough coverage or enough clarity to carry as much weight as they should. That said the storytelling makes up for it, and you always know what’s at stake in the games. In this way, the games always seem to represent pivotal points in the boys’ lives, rather than carry any importance within them. It just would’ve been nice to see camerawork that could keep up with the speed of basketball itself. And the fact is that truly fancy cameras would not have “felt” like they carried the tone of the story. By watching 90s quality video you really feel trapped, both in the time it was created and also the lower class lifestyle these boys are leading. Sure, the film could’ve looked better, but would it have portrayed the story as well?

This movie has some really great characters to offer, from the parents to the coaches, and of course the boys themselves. It’s an expansive and emotional tale that, when it ends, makes you want to keep going and learn more about the lives of the people involved. I’d highly recommend it to any sports fan, or just anyone interested in human drama.

Afficianado points: 7.3/10.